A fighter for al-Shabab, a radical Islamic group at the heart of Somalia's deadly insurgency, Ismail was clearly emboldened. His comrades advanced to within miles of Somalia's capital in the past few days, seizing vast territory in recent weeks and vowing to use strict Muslim rules to bring their lawless Horn of Africa country under control.
“I am happy with how things are going here,” Ismail said, in this once-beautiful seaside capital, which has crumbled into a scorched, bullet-pocked shantytown during Somalia's 20 years of anarchy. “I can go freely anywhere I want and I can target my enemy by sight.”
The rise of al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, exceeds the worst-case scenarios laid out in late 2006 when Somalia's U.N.-backed government rolled into Mogadishu supported by Ethiopian troops and drove out radicals intent on ruling by strict Shariah law.
The past two years have been a bloodbath as the Islamic fighters launched a vicious, Iraq-style insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and sent an estimated half of Mogadishu's 2 million people fleeing. They have seized most of southern Somalia – advancing to within 10 miles of the capital Wednesday – allowing fighters like Ismail to roam the streets unhindered.
Even in the capital, where the government is still nominally in control, Shabab fighters carry out public punishments like lashings and stonings, conduct training exercises and present themselves as alternate government.
Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent gains by al-Shabab – which means The Youth – reflect “the almost total collapse” of the government.
Some war-weary residents say they have no interest in the Shabab's interpretation of Islam – as long as they can bring peace. Many felt the same in 2006, when the Islamists brought six months of relative peace to Somalia, but frightened people into submission with strict laws.
“I do not care about their principles,” said Ganey Aflanay, 24-year-old bus driver. “All I need is peace and security.”